Kentucky upset fourth-ranked Minnesota in a five-set thriller in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When he put Kentucky's 2013 volleyball schedule together, Craig Skinner knew his team would be put to the test this week.
Archrival Louisville was up first on Tuesday. Three days later, the Wildcats would have to turn around and host perennial power Pepperdine. To cap it all off, UK would take on Minnesota, the nation's fourth-ranked team.
Predictably, there were ups and downs.
UK defeated U of L in a five-set thriller to get it going, coming back from a set down and playing through 89-degree heat inside Memorial Coliseum. Pepperdine would then bring the Cats back down to earth with a decisive sweep on Friday, leaving serious doubt about whether UK would be to hang with the unbeaten Golden Gophers less than 24 hours later.
Not only would the Cats compete, they would win. In doing so, they delivered one of the most memorable moments of the Skinner era.
The No. 19 Cats (5-3) pounced on their opponents, taking the first set 25-18 and energizing the crowd of 1,586. Expectedly, Minnesota responded, winning the second set. UK, however, wouldn't wilt, winning the third, narrowly losing the fourth and dominating the fifth, 15-8.
"Just a heck of an effort," Skinner said of the win over Minnesota, the highest-ranked team UK has defeated during his tenure. "We were very aggressive tonight and followed the game plan to a T and players just stepped up and made plays. You gotta make individual plays against great teams and that's what we did tonight."
Making more than her share of individual plays was Whitney Billings. The senior All-American had 12 digs and 25 kills, hitting a blistering .467 and committing just four errors in the process.
"I just went out there and just played my game," Billings said. "I wasn't thinking about anything. I was thinking about now and I wasn't thinking about the next point, I wasn't thinking about the last point. I was just going for it basically."
That's perhaps the most impressive thing about Billings' night: She surprised no one by doing it.
"Whitney played like herself," Skinner said. "She played free, she played aggressive. She's capable of big things and she really performed tonight for us."
Billings, though, was hardly the only Wildcat to deliver on Saturday night.
Lauren O'Conner had a career-high 18 kills. Anni Thomasson tallied her fourth double-double with 10 kills and 14 digs. Jackie Napper had a career high of her own with 24 digs. Running the show was setter Morgan Bergren, who bested her previous high with 55 assists and added 10 digs.
"We were consumed with playing for each other and not thinking about our individual roles," Skinner said. "When we get consumed with how we're going to play for each other, we allow ourselves to play at a higher level. Probably one word to describe that would just be aggressive and live with the outcome."
That's all Skinner was asking for heading into the match. Less than a day removed from seeing his team play far below its potential against Pepperdine, Skinner just wanted the Cats to let it fly. They certainly did that.
"I think it was a hard-fought game, honestly, from the beginning until the end," Billings said. "Before we even went out there, we knew we had to give it our all because they weren't going to give it to us. They didn't give it to us; we went out there and took it."
Even after the Friday-night loss, Skinner knew UK was capable of this kind of performance. In fact, he drew up a challenging schedule hoping to bring it out of his team. With play in the always-challenging Southeastern Conference not far away, the Cats now have incontrovertible proof of what they can do when they're clicking.
"To me, the biggest thing is it builds our confidence and allows our players to understand the level we can play at," Skinner said. "I'm proud of these guys the way they stepped up and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to get in the gym with these guys because they're fun to coach."
Freshman Anni Thomasson had a double-double in her first-ever match against Louisville, a five-set UK win. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Kentucky and Louisville get together on the volleyball court, it's a pointless exercise to try to predict the winner.
The only thing you can be certain of is that it will be a battle.
"I don't know what it is," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "Four out of the last six have gone five (sets). It's a battle and you can throw out records, you can throw out the last match, you can throw out statistics and it always just seems to be a real competition. You see a lot of emotions, a lot of adrenaline, a lot of nerves and tonight was no exception."
It certainly was not.
The outcome was in doubt until the final moments, but the No. 19 Wildcats (5-2) took down the visiting Cardinals (2-4) in five sets. In a seesaw affair, UK fell behind 1-0 before winning the second and third sets. U of L would answer in the fourth, but a 5-0 run in the fifth closed it out for the Cats.
"I feel like we left everything out there and we knew that all of us were going to win that game," said senior Alexandra Morgan, who tied for the team high with 13 kills. "We knew that we were going to fight our hardest for every point."
Tuesday evening's match, with its momentum swings and emotional moments, could be figuratively described using the word heated, but the term is even more fitting in a more literal sense. With outside temperatures reaching the low 90s earlier in the day and 1,888 fans in Memorial Coliseum for the rivalry showdown, event staff reported the temperature on the floor was around 90 degrees throughout.
"I didn't even play and it felt like I lost about six pounds out there with the heat and tried to drink as much water as possible," Skinner said.
Skinner said both teams' setters had the toughest task in coping with the heat, as perspiration from passes made for a slippery volleyball. UK's Morgan Bergren managed a game-high 51 assists anyway, applying her experience practicing indoors during the summer.
"We do practice in it a lot," Shelby Workman said. "We're used to it. It's definitely not been that hot in a while, but we're kind of more prepared. We know what to expect. We worked in it in August in 100-degree weather, so we've just got to fight through it. We don't have another option."
The Cats had more than just heat to fight through against U of L. Using a more aggressive approach, the Cardinals got off to a blistering start in taking the first set, 25-17. UK responded in the second, building a 24-18 lead. Louisville, however, would score the next five points to create a few tense moments, but UK avoided a 2-0 hole by taking the next point.
"We could have packed it in there when they got it to 23 and we got it done," Skinner said. "Those are big moments."
More big moments awaited after Louisville dominated the fourth set to force a decisive fifth. The two teams traded points throughout the middle of the set, but UK rode a wave of emotion during that match-ending run.
Thomasson committed an attack error that gave the Cardinals an 11-10 lead, but redeemed herself two points later with the kill - her career-best 13th of the match - that would give UK the lead for good.
"I don't think she fears much and she thrives in those situations," Skinner said. "That's what competitors do."
Anni Thomasson added a team-best 16 digs - also a career high - in the match, which served as her initiation into the UK-U of L rivalry.
"It's intense, for sure," Thomasson said. "I've never really been on a team that wanted to win as much as this team does. Just seeing all the emotion from the girls with this game is just unreal."
UK's will to win has been on display over the past five days, as the Wildcats have won a pair of five-set matches to bookend four victories to open their home season. Skinner knows there's no substitute for a proven ability to produce in those situations.
"It's a lot of experience because you can't create that in practice," Skinner said. "You can't create being up big in a set and winning. You can't create going down big in the fourth and then coming back in the fifth. For us to weather the storm and win the last two five-setters we've been in says a lot about the toughness of these guys when it matters."
Skinner just hopes UK's next five-setter comes in more comfortable temperatures.
"I didn't," Skinner said when asked whether he ever considered loosening his tie, "but I saw an ice bucket behind the bench and I was thinking about sticking my head inside it."
Jackie Napper leads UK into a match with Louisville -- her hometown school -- after winning Kentucky Classic MVP honors this weekend. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Craig Skinner has coached in his share of rivalry matchups.
He's patrolled the sidelines as Kentucky has battled for Southeastern Conference supremacy with the likes of Tennessee and Florida. He has been there as UK resumed its annual series with Louisville in 2009.
Based on that experience, Skinner has come to grips with the fact that there's only so much he can control when it comes to his team's psyche in those kinds of matches.
"I guess I've probably given up trying to temper emotions because I don't know if it's possible in a rivalry match," Skinner said.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, UK (4-2) will host U of L (2-3) for the fifth time since the rivalry's return. Winners of four straight matches - including a perfect weekend en route to a Kentucky Classic title last weekend - the No. 19 Wildcats look to earn bragging rights in Memorial Coliseum. The all-time series between the two schools is knotted at 25-25, with both schools winning twice since 2009.
Before the first serve, Skinner won't try to play the just-another-match card with his team.
"It's obviously going to be emotional and exciting," Skinner said. "The thing I usually tell the team is I don't know where your first five swings are going to go because there's going to be adrenaline, but let's settle down after that and play some good volleyball."
In recent years, the volleyball played between Kentucky and Louisville has only gotten better.
UK, of course, has reached eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Skinner's guidance and continues to take steps forward as a program each season. U of L, meanwhile, has made the postseason each of the last three years, including in 2012 when the Cardinals won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles.
The rebirth of the rivalry has coincided with unprecedented growth of the sport in the Bluegrass. More and more youngsters are playing volleyball in the state, feeding talent to programs like UK, U of L, Western Kentucky and Morehead State and fueling interest.
"The amount of people participating in volleyball here is phenomenal," Skinner said. "The amount across the state, obviously, is good and obviously the college programs are doing well, so it's one of the premier rivalries in our sport across the country. And I think (Tuesday) night will be no different."
A year ago, a record crowd of 5,007 packed the KFC Yum! Center for U of L's four-set win over Kentucky. Thousands turned out as UK hosted back-to-back matches vs. Louisville in 2010-11. The home team has won all four matches between the two teams since 2009.
"The crowds have always been phenomenal," Skinner said. "I think last year in Louisville there was over 5,000 people. Our place was a big crowd two years ago and three years ago and I expect the same."
Louisville native Jackie Napper will play the match in search of her second in three years over her hometown school. She played against U of L each of the last two seasons, but will take on a different role this time around. She is now UK's libero, succeeding fellow Louisville native Stephanie Klefot.
Napper's presence has been vital during UK's ongoing winning streak, but Skinner is now looking for even more from the junior.
"Jackie's a very confident player," Skinner said. "She's very competitive. She serve-receives as well as anybody in the country and she's a great leader. Her whole team has a lot of respect for her and I think opponents do too. Jackie knows this: She needs to dig a few more balls. But serve-receive, she's as good as anyone we've had in that position."
Louisville - having lost a number of key contributors - is a different team this year, but UK's ability to serve-receive remains important. More important, however, is the simple fact that UK-U of L is a volleyball rivalry once again.
"It's good we've played this rivalry again since '09 and it's great for the sport," Skinner said. "Really glad we're playing it and there's really good volleyball all over this part of the country, so it's good to have this type of match in our house. It'll be another exciting match tomorrow night. Louisville's very athletic and our players will definitely be ready to go."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 8:
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Junior Jackie Napper was tabbed the Most Valuable Player and earned Kentucky Classic All-Tournament teams in helping guide UK to a trio of wins this week. Napper averaged 3.91 digs and 1.64 assists per set in the three victories. She logged a season-high 19 digs in a win over VCU, while narrowly becoming the first defensive player to earn a double-double in school history with nine assists in the match. She notched 16 digs in a three-set victory over ETSU. In the final win of the weekend, Napper dished out six assists while accumulating eight digs in the victory over ETSU. Furthermore, she posted a kill in the win over VCU, her first of the year.
Women's soccer: Stuart Pope
Kentucky capped off its second-straight weekend sweep on Sunday, striking for two first-half goals and an extra in the second half to tally the 3-1 win over the Dayton Flyers. UK got goals from Alex Carter, Zoe Swift and Stuart Pope. The goal for Pope was the fourth-straight game that she has scored in, as she has five goals in the last four games. Pope was named the SEC Player of the Week last week by CollegeSoccerMadness.com.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson had a breakout weekend for the Wildcats en route to earning Kentucky Classic All-Tournament team honors. In the opening victory vs. VCU, Thomasson was utilized as a defensive specialist playing in the back row exclusively. The following morning, Thomasson received her first career start and played all six rotations. She delivered her first career double-double effort with a career-high 12 kills on a blistering .435 hitting clip. She notched 13 digs and added a block, while turning in a perfect performance in the serve-receive game. She remained in the starting lineup for the win over ETSU and notched seven kills, while adding eight digs and a career-high four blocks. For the week, she averaged 1.73 kills per set (despite only playing in the front row for two of the three matches). She ranked third on the squad with 2.18 digs per stanza.